Shlomo Avineri
Haaretz (Opinion)
November 11, 2009 - 1:00am

After nine months of gestation, it's not too early to make a preliminary assessment of the Obama administration's foreign policy. The overall feeling is one of disappointment, especially in light of the almost messianic excitement that accompanied his election. It's clear to everyone that U.S. President Barack Obama is not George W. Bush, and the international mood regarding the United States has certainly changed for the better, even in the absence of any real breakthroughs. This is why he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.

All this is particularly noticeable considering the impressive rhetoric of Obama's public appearances. The United States has not had such an exceptional president for a long time: His personality, background, emotional intelligence and ability to express a stirring vision to disparate audiences on their level.

But its seems the good intentions have run into an obstinate reality. Hillary Clinton may not want to remember it now when she is Obama's secretary of state, but she was the one who pointed out during last year's primaries that rhetoric and vision cannot replace experience and knowledge of the world. Back at home, it seems Obama is succeeding in passing his health care initiatives - a historic achievement. But U.S. presidents are largely judged on how they navigate their country's foreign policy and leave their stamp on international affairs. The start was impressive: Obama replaced Bush's policy of belligerent conflict with one of engagement. But this has not yet been translated into real achievements.

As for Iran, Obama put an end to Bush's policy of refusing to negotiate and threatening to use force, whether through hints or clear public statements. But the dialogue with Tehran has not yet borne fruit. In fact, the opposite is true: American moderation is viewed as weakness. The Iranians are making a mockery of the negotiators and trying to waste time; in effect they are spitting in Obama's face. The Americans are hinting that they will move toward attempting to impose harsh sanctions if there is no progress in the talks by the end of December - even if Russia and China block a decision by the UN Security Council. All we can do is wait and see, but this is no great success.

The same goes for Obama's Russian policy: Rescinding the plan to put a missile-defense system in Poland and the Czech Republic did not change Russia's policy on Iran, for example. The administration, meanwhile, faces a debacle in Afghanistan, and Obama seems to have reneged on his campaign promise to send in another 40,000 soldiers. In any case, his NATO allies are not willing to volunteer reinforcements for him.

And finally, the Middle East. Obama started his presidency with an announcement that he would act vigorously to achieve an Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement; he appointed George Mitchell as his special envoy. But what happened to Mitchell is what happened to other envoys to the region: Faced with a lack of political will among the quarrelling parties, the envoys have been left helpless. When Mitchell got entangled in the freezing of construction in the settlements, he wasted much of America's political capital. After all, how can someone who cannot handle "natural growth" in the settlements achieve an overall solution to the conflict?

Hillary Clinton's visit did not show any results either, and the threatened resignation by Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, even if he does not go through with it, certainly does not represent any great American success. Even if the negotiations resume, despite everything, they will be portrayed as a huge achievement. But let's remember that negotiations went on for years when Ehud Olmert was prime minister and no agreement ever came out of them.

It's not true that the road to hell is paved with good intentions. Sometimes good intentions don't lead anywhere at all.


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